An Astronaut and Endurance

Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of DiscoveryEndurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery by Scott Kelly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finding candor in a vast public relations program can be like searching for water in outer space. It’s there, but it’s scattered in small amounts that are easy to miss. So, it’s quite a joy for a space enthusiast like me to come across a book like Scott Kelly’s Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery.

In Endurance, readers will find candor about NASA operations and culture. They will also read revealing descriptions of the scrappier Russian space program. What is more, Kelly speaks candidly about his time as a Navy test pilot and life at home. His pathway from boy to man to astronaut included plenty of turbulence.

Arguably the most shocking detail in the book is Mr. Kelly’s poor showing in high school. I have this image of astronaut candidates as elite almost from birth, straight A students, Eagle Scouts, double doctorate types. Though Kelly had the right stuff, he failed to truly tap into it until college. Even then, it proved a struggle.

Though the main storyline of this memoir is Kelly’s record-setting time aboard the International Space Station, he also intersperses chapters about growing up in a troubled home, his time as an EMT, and his marriage and subsequent divorce. Space geeks will experience the cosmic adventure the dust jacket promises. They will also learn of the broader personal and professional challenges, the years of preparation for a single flight.

“Our space agencies won’t be able to push out farther into space, to a destination like Mars, until we can learn more about how to strengthen the weakest links in the chain that makes spaceflight possible: the human body and mind.”

Kelly presents a highly personal narrative of camaraderie, both with his twin brother and fellow astronaut Mark, as well as with his Russian counterparts. At the center of this grand project, Russia and the United States remain the two biggest players. While describing the no-nonsense–well, the modest amounts of nonsense–culture of the International Space Station, Kelly also brings into focus the symbiotic relationship of America and Russia.

On YouTube videos, we see one space station. Yet in a sense, the ISS is two stations joined at the hip. At times this partnership seems as vulnerable and pockmarked as the hull of the ISS. Yet it triumphs again and again. Kelly’s book left me feeling more insecure about our two nations’ spacefaring bond, but also convinced we must continue cooperating.

Running consistently through Endurance is Kelly’s dry, but unmistakable sense of humor. Also evident is his fondness and admiration for fellow astro- and cosmonauts. Readers will have spaceflight explained by a coolheaded thrill seeker who has spent a lifetime learning how to manage risk. For me, the dryness and attention to technical detail sometimes make for a less engaging read. But this is a minor criticism. Endurance took me deeper into the ISS’s guts and culture than I’ve ever been.

For readers making their first foray into spaceflight literature, I recommend Mike Massimino’s more conversational book, Spaceman. However, if this adventurous subject has already taken hold of you, make sure Endurance is on your reading list.

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Under the Belly of Enterprise

This week I visited New York City to see The Iceman Cometh starring Denzel Washington, as well as finally seeing an opera at the Met. It was a great trip. One of the highlights was meeting the space shuttle Enterprise at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum Complex.

Until seeing this exhibit, I had failed to appreciate the extent to which NASA tested this vehicle in preparation for space missions. In addition to gliding tests, they strapped it to boosters and also submitted it brutal vibrations to prove the design. Grand engineering!

Here is a brief clip of my previous visit to space shuttle Discovery in Washington DC.

A beautiful ISS image for you

ISS048-E-2035_lrg

Hell of a corner office those astronauts have.

The above image comes to us courtesy of NASA’s Earth Observatory website. The images they send me via my email subscription never disappoint. For a full caption, and to learn which landscape is featured, visit Earth Observatory.

Dan Brown’s “Origin” Takes a Seat

Origin (Robert Langdon, #5)Origin by Dan Brown

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Somewhere deep in Dan Brown’s latest made-to-order bestseller, Origin, I suddenly felt like I was rereading Ayn Rand’s mammoth novel Atlas Shrugged. Rand’s novel is a long-winded and extremely haughty work. I primarily read it so I could say I had. In contrast, Brown’s novels are sleek, fast-paced thrillers. I consume them for the main course of spectacle with a side order of thought-provocation. Yet, more than once, usually in the lecture-driven chapters, I felt like Brown was serving up something pretentious in the style of Rand.

The premise of Origin involves a super-rich futurist who declares he has discovered the answers to humanity’s most fundamental questions:

Where do we come from? And, where are we going?

From Brown’s pen, these questions result in scandal, murder, and intrigue at the highest levels of Spanish society. Why Spain? Why not? Spain has religious landmarks galore, along with royalty, upper-echelon clergy, and elite security forces. Origin also features a museum director who becomes the novel’s gorgeous sidekick. On the upside, she proves essential to the plot and comes off as daring and compelling as any other character. Let us also acknowledge the novel’s thoroughly likable protagonist: Harvard professor Robert Langdon.

Regarding the two great questions above, readers are consigned to spend most of the novel wildly speculating. The answers may involve anything from disproving God to proving extraterrestrial involvement. The only thing the novel makes clear early on is the religious leaders who get a sneak peek at the answer are left utterly spooked. And here is what makes Origin so irresistible a yarn. The novel’s prophetic thought-leader opens the story by declaring he has the answers to life’s greatest mysteries. By implication, does that mean author Dan Brown has them?

Take a breath. It’s a novel. But, as I hoped, maybe Brown will at least offer some dramatic rendering of these questions that leaves us spellbound. Great novels can do that.

For all its revelatory promise, Origin primarily sermonizes. Readers, you will be preached to. You will be TED Talked at. Your brain will be YouTubed hard and fast. Origin is the transcript of a multimedia presentation wrapped inside a dust jacket. Moreover, Origin necessarily spends oodles of time showcasing internet communication. This becomes a narrative challenge for Brown, who must alternate between action-packed chases and characters plopping down in chairs to stream video.

What I say next will probably sound snobbish. I spend a good share of time following both science and religion. As such, Origin failed to reward me with any dramatically new ideas or theories about the origin or fate of life on Earth. If you read Origin, and it arrives in your mind as astounding new revelation, please don’t mistake the novel for being groundbreaking. It just means you’re not particularly well-read, at least in scientific thought.

With Robert Langdon as the lead, Brown has really penned only one novel: Angels and Demons (still his best in my opinion). The four subsequent Langdon novels simply retrofit new characters, settings and conspiracies to the same basic formula. Why does a disenchanted reader like me keep buying Brown’s books? No secret there. I’m addicted to them.

Odd that I am essentially rejecting Origin, even though I feel Dan Brown and I are likeminded on its underlying issues and themes. We’re both incredulous in the face of creationism. We’re both enthusiastic about science. And we both feel humankind, notwithstanding its rich history and wonderous potential, must wrestle with the prospect of a dark future—a future in which our species must fundamentally change or die.

So, if you’re in the market for a sci-fi homily, then plop down on the couch with Robert Langdon et al. and enjoy Origin. But if like me you came to the book for the mystery and the spectacle, perhaps it’s time to reread Angels and Demons.

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Capturing Eclipse Reactions

Yesterday I saw not one, but a half-dozen total solar eclipses. Such was the odd privilege of being stuck inside an office cubicle for most of the day, relying on internet coverage. From Oregon to South Carolina, again and again, I watched the sun disappear, become a coronal ring around the moon, and then burst forth in an audience-delighting “diamond ring” glow.

More than just astronomy, this event became both ritual and communion. Below is a touching video put together by The Washington Post which provides a good balance of eclipse footage and human exultation.

Each time another crowd witnessed the eclipse, I found myself especially taken with the audible reactions. Animals can’t possibly sleep during a total eclipse. They must sit alert, waiting tensely for the light to return so the humans will stop squealing and shouting for joy.

And people? They struggle for words. The oral history of the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse, from seasoned reporters to little kids, begins and ends with the word “Wow!”

To sum it up, as I watched the reactions again and again yesterday, they seemed a marvelous mingling of two things: 1) feeling like an ecstatic kid; 2) feeling something deep and profound, mystical or spiritual even. Feeling like the sun and moon at once?

Below is a good 360 view. Press play. Then click and drag upward to see the sun as a pillar of light which recedes into a tight ring surrounded by temporary night. Thanks to The Salt Lake Tribune for putting this one together. Old-school newspapers are giving me the best highlight footage to share. Awesome!

 

Exploring Self with ‘The Black Penguin’

The Black PenguinThe Black Penguin by Andrew Evans

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Vaguely annoyed. That’s how I felt after months of following Andrew Evans on Twitter. When was this guy’s paid vacation going to end? Did he really think he could infect me with his exuberance for world travel? Who was funding him? Annoying! The only reason I followed Andrew was Twitter told me to. That and it seemed a little fun, keeping tabs on a literal globe trotter. Plus, his tweets often displayed a celebratory quality about our world.

Okay, so my early annoyance turned out to be jealousy. Years later, @WheresAndrew remains a Twitter account I recommend following. Even so, buying a copy of his new book The Black Penguin was not an immediate priority, but for one fact that eluded me until last week. I’d never realized Andrew Evans was raised Mormon.

Andrew and I have two critical things in common. We both served LDS Church missions, and we both eventually walked away from the Church. Being both a Twitter fan and a fellow “returned missionary” makes it near impossible for me to write a fully objective review of The Black Penguin. I was rooting for Andrew before I finished reading the preface. Still, this is not a book solely, or even mostly, about his journey out of Mormonism.

The Black Penguin recounts Andrew’s bus trip from Washington D.C. to Antarctica (including a short plane ride and a necessary transfer to a boat near the end). The book exhibits a binary structure. While Andrew proceeds southward by bus in the narrative present, his book flashes back to school years spent in Ohio and Utah, and his time in the Ukraine as a Mormon missionary. Yet, even with this time hopping, The Black Penguin displays a unifying sense of rising action and purpose.

Andrew’s epic bus trip eventually became an article for National Geographic Traveler, supplemented by blog posts and tweets from the road. Along the way the book detours further into his past to reveal an origin story fraught with bullying, religious judgement, and family crisis. All these ordeals were reactions to Andrew’s same-sex orientation. For Andrew, the science of geography became the art of escape.

By running past and present storylines in tandem, The Black Penguin offers engrossing parallels. For instance, the chapter about Andrew being found out at Brigham Young University connects to chapters about dangerous travel through Mexico and Central America. Both episodes exhibit the same sense of peril, fueled by powerful, sometimes unseen, forces that may decide his fate at any moment.

Yet, like his tweets, Andrew’s book also provides humor, beauty, and excitement. The personable, empathic prose creates a sensation of being in the seat next to him, staring out the bus window while passing near cliffs, through jungles, and along coastlines. And while the book is ultimately about Andrew’s quest, it teams with lively stories about people he meets along the way—quite like an issue of National Geographic.

Page after page, I experienced a keen sense of us all being on a globe, feeling the pace of its spin, gaining greater awareness of our relationship to each other and Earth. I highly recommend The Black Penguin. It’s a trip we all should experience.

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